We already have the tools for happiness

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It is not unusual to hear parents say all they want for themselves and for their children is to be happy. But the search for happiness has also given birth to irrational exuberance. It has arguably tanked the economy and ruined the lives of many, duped by motivational speakers, mega-church pastors, televangelists, TV gurus and self-help authors.

They preach that visualizing something you want makes it real, or that buying a house on spec and believing you can afford it will ensure mega-profits.

However, the elusive pursuit of happiness is not working. Although statistics show that about a third of American adults report they are “very happy,” another 55 percent are somewhere in between bliss and misery.

The drive to achieve happiness propels parents to help their children acquire the extrinsic signs of success. They set out to prove that money can buy happiness.

In so doing, they transform puberty from a rite of passage into an arms race of achievement.

Ultimately the push for success — and, by extension, happiness — haunts many who wind up on the psychiatrist’s couch because they cannot enjoy the prizes they have attained.

The forthcoming Happiness and its Causes Conference, to be held Nov. 24-25 in San Francisco, is a testament to the self-indulgent happiness movement. With advertisements emblazoned on city buses, the conference boasts itself as providing “tools and techniques for a happier life from 40 of the best minds in psychology, philosophy, science, education, business, politics, the arts, medicine and sports.”

What constitutes happiness from a Jewish perspective?

According to Jewish tradition, a child is born with a purpose. On the eighth day, that child is not magically granted happiness. Instead, he or she enters into the covenant, a partnership with God to repair the broken world. Anything else is ancillary to that task.

Thus, happiness is not found by heading off in hot pursuit of it. Rather it is a byproduct, an often unintended consequence of having our lives spill over into those of others. Indeed, the Bible has no word for happiness because the primary goal of life ought to be the satisfaction that comes from being immersed in a community that offers us something bigger.

Connecting to others enriches life. Giving leads to receiving. Simchat mitzvah — the joy of doing a righteous deed — is not necessarily fun. Often its greatest reward is simply gaining the opportunity to do yet another mitzvah.

Our sacred literature — a user’s guide to mitzvahs — is a handbook for fulfillment that embodies Judaism’s highest values within a sacred community.

They include shalom bayit, or domestic tranquility, nurturing a peaceful home. Kehilah, connectedness to a caring community. Hach’nasat orchim, hospitality to strangers. Tzedakah, righteous giving. Talmud Torah, Jewish learning. Bikur holim, visiting the sick. G’milut Hasidim, acts of kindness. Neemanut, faithfulness. Chesed, benevolent goodness. And tikkun olam, perfecting a broken world.

These are the most lasting legacies that create a sense of satisfaction — there are no substitutes.

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce is the senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.